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Byline: Carole Nicksin

NEW YORK-In the annals of retail, a few stores stand out for capturing a particular moment and creating a lasting impact on how goods are sold. Henri Bendel, with its corridor of in-store boutiques, was the "It" store of the 1960s; the "nightclubby," Day-Glo atmosphere of Fiorucci made it irresistible in the late 1970s.

In the home furnishings sector, Design Research was perhaps the seminal store of the second half of the 20th century. Today, 35 years after the company folded, its impact can still be felt. Stores, particularly Crate & Barrel, have assimilated the lessons of Design Research and retooled them for the mainstream. Meanwhile, the many alumni of Design Research continue to work in a variety of capacities, spreading the slightly Bauhaus, better-living-through-design message through their own work.

Founded by architect Ben Thompson in Cambridge, Mass., in 1953, Design Research introduced Marimekko to the United States and was one of the first importers of modern Scandinavian design. Thompson grew the company into a small chain, with outposts in Hyannis Port, Mass., New York and San Francisco. In 1969, he opened a flagship store in a glass building of his own design in Cambridge. Shortly thereafter, Thompson lost control of the company to an investor who opened numerous units across the country before declaring bankruptcy in the late 1970s.

"It was the first attempt to do a lifestyle store, before anyone knew that word," said Jane Thompson, who married Ben in 1969 and worked with him at Design Research and in his architectural firm. (Ben died in 2002 at the age of 84.) The stores carried a then-unique combination of products, including furniture, clothing and toys, with a variety of price points ranging from less than a dollar to out-of-reach. "Everything was very beautiful and sensuous, which was new, because modernism was strict and spare then," Thompson said.

Thompson describes the merchandising in terms that sound more like performance art or perhaps a 1960s happening than Retail 101. "We hung the fabrics everywhere; they were the dividers in the store. If you had a Marimekko pattern in a strong color, a green, and then if you could get someone wearing a green Marimekko dress to move around in front of the panel, well, then you had something."

"It had this electricity," recalled home furnishings designer Raymond Waites, who was once the creative vice president of the company. "You might see Jackie Kennedy or Paul Newman or Mike Nichols. It was like an entertainment cultural center. You'd meet your friends there on Saturday. There was always cider, `The Girl From Ipanema' was always playing, and there was a sofa in every department that you could lounge on."

"It was a store with a sense of mission or personality," said Julia McFarland, who worked in the Manhattan store and went on to co-found AdHoc Softwares, perhaps the first purveyor of the industrial design movement. To McFarland, who now manages the Thomas O'Brien Aero store, having a mission is imperative in retail. "I think it would be hard to open a store without that kind of purpose. It would just be another store."

"Most of us who worked at DR, lived DR," said Lu Lyndon, who met her husband Maynard when she hired him to manage the Beverly Hills, Calif., Design Research store. "We lived what we were selling, this attitude about our homes. And we wanted to share that with the customers. It wasn't an exclusive club, it was `come enjoy this with us.' " The Lyndons went on to open a store called Placewares that was perhaps the first home organization store, and eventually grew the company into a seven-store chain.

Whether it was the sense of purpose they felt at Design Research or the freedom and creativity of the place, former employees seem to have had a difficult time working for other retailers. "It was hard to go from something so interesting and entrepreneurial to something that was by the book," said Susan Becher, who went to work for Bloomingdale's after six years at Design Research. Her Bloomingdale's stint lasted less than a year. Becher subsequently started her own public relations firm, specializing in home furnishings clients, which she still runs today.

"We were all comrades on the same ship. There was a feeling that we would all be successful. It was like a halfway house for a lot of very creative people, and it emboldened us," said Joan Behnke, an alumni of the Beverly Hills store who now runs her own interior design firm.

David Wasco, who started in the San Francisco store and eventually became display director of the company, took what he learned at Design Research and applied it to movies. As production designer of all of Quentin Tarantino's films, Michael Mann's recent opus, "Collateral," and many others, Wasco credits Design Research with forming his aesthetic. "Design Research shaped my way of thinking. I've designed Wes Anderson's films, from `Bottle Rocket' to `Rushmore' to `The Royal Tenenbaums.' There's a geometric way of looking at things that we incorporate, this Bauhaus way of looking at things, and that's very much Design Research."

Wasco met another Design Research employee, Sandy Reynolds, in the Cambridge store. The two married and continue to work together on film projects.

As for the retailers that are carrying on the legacy, Crate & Barrel is the name that is mentioned most often. Ben Thompson was the U.S. distributor of Marimekko products, and early on, Gordon Segal began buying the fabrics and products for his Crate & Barrel stores. Later, when Design Research was folding, Segal bought the rights to the name.

"Gordon Segal really took it to the next level," said Julian Tomchin, former senior vice president of Bloomingdale's.

"All the models Gordon used came from Design Research," said retail consultant Joel Kaplan.


Susan Becher

Susan Becher Public Relations

Joan Behnke Interior Designer,

Joan Behnke & Assoc.

Victoria Borus Interior Designer,

B5 Studio

Nancy Hemenway Owner, The Cottage

Pauline Dora Owner, Design Solutions

Lu & Maynard Lyndon

Product designers, LyndonDesign

Formerly owned Placewares stores

Julia McFarland Manager,

Thomas O'Brien's Aero store

Formerly co-owned AdHoc Softwares

Herbert Muschamp Architecture critic,

The New York Times

Astrid Vigeland Owner, Folly 101

Raymond Waites

Home furnishings designer

Sandy Reynolds-Wasco Set decorator

David Wasco Production designer

Caption(s): Above: The colorful interior of Design Research's 57th Street, New York store in the 1960s. / Left: Ben Thompson founded the store in 1953.
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Author:Nicksin, Carole
Publication:HFN The Weekly Newspaper for the Home Furnishing Network
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 8, 2004
Previous Article:FLIP OF THE COIN.

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